Thursday, July 28

Mysteries of Democracy: Now you've got my goat

The following email arrived in my inbox with the title The Mysteries of Democracy.

"Greetings Pundita,
My question relates to how we can better understand democracy from the point of view of people who do not have a whole lot of experience with it.

Niels Bohr, one of the giants of 20th century physics, once said that anyone who is not shocked by the implications of quantum mechanics does not understand it. He said this because at its most basic level, reality, according to quantum mechanics, does not behave in a deterministic fashion like Newtonian mechanics. You can only determine the probability of events at the atomic level, such as the position of an electron. Einstein himself had deep reservations about this saying "God does not play dice with the universe."

So my question is can we say the same of democracy, that anyone who is not shocked by its implications does not truly understand it? When I think about it just as a practical matter it does not appear obvious why anyone would use a system for which there is a significant degree of randomness in the choosing of its leaders and crafting of its legislation.

Indeed most of Europe's ruling elite in the days of our Founding Founders assumed it would end in chaos as they hoped our Civil War would prove. How can we better understand this process ourselves and explain to others why and under what conditions democracies succeed?
Greg in Orlando"

Dear Greg:
Ah, but there is not randomness for humans. This was explained to me many moons ago by Guru David after I came across the very same comments by Bohr and Einstein that you mention. I was quite perturbed by the discussion and spent days pondering myself in circles until I recalled why there are gurus.

Guru David handed me a pile of computer printout pages that weighed several pounds and which contained nothing but row upon row of digits. He explained that the printout was the result of a random numbers generator software program. Then he asked me to study the pages to see if I could find any patterns among the randomly generated numbers. At first I saw none but within moments I reported in excitement that was finding all sorts of patterns.

Guru David replied, "The patterns you perceive are supplied by your mind, not the program. If you were a mathematician you could find many more patterns. So even if God is playing dice with the universe, humans can hunker down and study the rolls of the dice and from that find patterns, and from that find order in the universe."

Upon hearing of the Bush Democracy Doctrine, "Brother" Moammar Qaddafi, as he prefers to be called since getting more in touch with his African side, snapped, "Africans don't need democracy. They need food and medicine. Besides, Arabs invented democracy." He went on to say that the word 'democracy' has it roots in an Arab word meaning the people sitting together.

He's probably right because Arabs invented everything else. They had no choice, if you stop and think about it. In the old days, if your caravan got stuck in a sandstorm in the Kalahari you didn't tell an African chief, "Sorry, your shipment of dates has been rendered sandy goo due to circumstances beyond my control."

No. You invented the world's first miracle-ingredient exfoliating scrub, guaranteed to restore the glow of youth to even the most tired complexion.

I interject it's a pity that summary execution no longer accompanies failure to please the customer; this has diverted much human creativity into making excuses instead of inventions.

You are mystified because you're confusing a method of selection with the chore of assigning responsibility. The latter was never much of a problem in the old days because we could blame everything that went wrong on the gods, who were full of foibles and whose IQ was often in the idiot range.

Then came The Trouble, which generally we speak of only in whispers here in Pundita-land, but I will tell you a little about it. The Trouble started over a stolen goat; to be more precise, testimony about a stolen goat.

Incidentally this is where the expression, "Now you've got my goat" came from. And, more darkly, it explains how the mild mannered and frankly addle-brained goat came to be associated with the Devil.

In the old days the primary function of the chief was to be a judge -- to settle disputes that arose in the tribe. The Arabs hadn't gotten around yet to inventing fingerprinting so when it came to making a ruling on criminal matters the chief had to rely on oral testimony and brain sweat to determine guilt or innocence.

This duty wasn't so hard during the really old days because the life of a nomad was short and hard, which kept down the tribe's population. But once humans settled down and farmed our numbers greatly increased. What this meant for the chief is that instead of sitting through the testimony of say, five witnesses, he could hear from hundreds.

Thus, The Trouble started. It came to pass that the only respite chiefs got from ruling on cases from the bench was weddings, funerals, religious holidays and war.

However, there wasn't much war, and war in those days was rarely armed conflict. Instead, disputing tribes would paint themselves to look fierce then hop up and down and make screeching noises at each other. (I note this atavistic custom survives in the quaint ritual that anti-globalists perform outside the IMF and World Bank headquarters each Spring.) Whichever tribe managed to hop the highest and screech the loudest won the war.

Then one day, after weeks spent listening to 871 witnesses give testimony about a stolen goat, a chief turned to his court clerk and said, "Death in battle is preferable to this."

"Why not try adding another religious holiday?" whispered the clerk helpfully.

But as anyone who has visited old parts of the world can intuit, by that era chiefs desperate to get off the bench had already added so many religious holidays to the docket that tribal business moved at a snail's pace.

"No. I will gather the hotheads and travel far distant to fight a war."

This was unheard of. Wars, to the extent they occurred, were with neighbors. What else were neighbors for?

"On what grounds will you declare war on strangers?" asked the perplexed clerk.

"I don't know..." muttered the chief. "Maybe I'll find a strange tribe and call their gods stupid."

"But that is Taboo," gasped the clerk. "It is only allowed to call our own gods stupid!"

"Exactly," replied the chief grimly.

And so it began. All these millennia of bloody war and conquest -- all started by a goat who wandered off on his own accord to munch on some brambles.

This according to the possum member of my foreign policy team, whose accounts of her clan's recollections stretch back even long before the time of humans.

So here we are today. Having reasoned ourselves into a corner via the Bigger Fish Tale method, few are lucky enough to have the IQ of gods to blame for our troubles. The rest have an All Knowing, All Seeing God whose intelligence is so vast as to be immeasurable.

The downside is that we can't blame a know-it-all for any situation we consider to be a mess. No, we must find in the mess a divine plan. This still leaves us with the problem of assigning blame and responsibility for dealing with parts of the divine plan that are not pleasant for humans.

Here we come to another snag: there are now too many of us to allow for blaming a single person or small group for failure to adequately deal with a messy aspect of the divine plan. This means that today more of us must share in the responsibility for managing our societies.

This observation is so self-evident that one wonders why it's ignored in favor of hideously complex arguments for democracy. To understand this part, we would need to jump back a few chapters in history. But in one sentence, trust French philosophers to make something highly complex and abstract out of something childishly simple and concrete.

Thus, there is much mystery about the philosophy of democracy. But democracy is as old as tribes, as simple as people sitting around a fire and deciding between them how to handle problems that arise in their midst. Brother Qaddafi's remarks allude to this.

However, Brother Qaddafi does not take his argument far enough. It is true the Africans need food and medicine. Yet unless more of them take responsibility for governing themselves, the needs will be a bottomless pit while they go on looking for an elite or World Bank project to blame for the lack.

That is how to explain democracy to peoples who swear with their fingers crossed behind their back that they don't understand it. That is explanation, American-style.

Why is it so hard for Americans to come up with American-style explanations? Because American academia and think tanks are so steeped in European views that we don't even have an American lexicon for discussing foreign policy, much less democracy.

The Coen Brothers have made film after film in which they try to plumb the Mystery of America. This is in the attempt to explain how a bunch of farmers, tinkerers and salesmen created history's greatest nation.

Not by democracy alone did we do it. Our founding fathers worked their tails off. They were traders, farmers, accountants, inventors, soldiers; whatever they took from European philosophy, it was filtered through the American work ethic. So Americans arrived at the acceptance of democracy not through abstractions but through a "what works best" approach that was grounded in the experiential.

But Americans ignore their history, their own experiences, when they explain democracy to the rest of the world. Until we develop our own way of articulating things, we will keep finding ourselves sucked into philosophical debates that distract from our experience with democracy.

With regard to your observation about the randomness of choosing politicians in a democracy, I recall a true story about President George W. Bush's meeting with a constituent: When Bush inquired as to what he did for a living, the man replied that he sold compressed air. Bush shot back, "We're in the same business."

The system of American democratic government is not automatic -- it needs tending to -- but the system of checks and balances works well enough over time that individuals who represent the system are not as important as the gestalt.

We look for campaigning politicians to convey that they will give us what we want and be really good at explaining why they can't when they don't. That is an expectation of leaders that is as old as tribes. Thus, the order underlying the seeming randomness of democratic politics.

As for crafting legislation, those who closely follow doings on the Hill can tell you there is nothing random about reciprocity and the art of compromise. If you greatly familiarize yourself with the goals of a presidential administration and with the major congressional players and their pet projects, it is easy to perceive order behind the way legislation turns out.

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